PROVO, Utah — Before he has even coached a game, Mike Leach has already rejuvenated Washington State’s football program and produced some restless nights for opponents.
“Yeah, I was losing a little sleep over it,” Brigham Young outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga said of preparing for Leach’s Air Raid attack in Thursday night’s opener in Provo. “Then I came in here, watched the film … and re-affirmed it’s not as bad as I thought.”
He can only hope.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall knows what’s coming: He was New Mexico’s defensive coordinator when the Lobos faced Leach’s Texas Tech teams in 2000, 2001, and 2002. The Red Raiders won 24-3, 42-30 and 49-0.
The nationally televised game Thursday is full of subplots. Leach is coaching his first game since being fired by Texas Tech in 2009 amid allegations he mistreated a player who had a concussion. The game is on ESPN, who Leach is suing. And it’s against his alma mater, where Leach headed at 17 not to suit up for football but to play club rugby and meet people from all over the world.
Leach, who graduated from BYU with honors in 1983, insists he won’t get sentimental, though it’s clear his roots go deep — right to the man for whom BYU’s stadium is named.
“It’s hard to imagine what BYU . . . and also football in America, what it would be like without LaVell Edwards,” Leach said of BYU’s coach from 1972-2000. “I’m not the only person that LaVell Edwards influenced on throwing the football, and I think the argument could certainly be made that offensively we may look more like BYU than BYU does, if you reflect on the LaVell Edwards days.”
There’s no question Leach likes to throw the ball, though the quirky coach declined to reveal Tuesday whether veteran Jeff Tuel or sophomore Connor Halliday would start at quarterback against BYU.
Mendenhall said there’s a chance he’ll rotate his centers, but the group facing the biggest test figures to be BYU’s secondary, which lost two starters from last season. That means a player whose last start was as a high school quarterback could end up facing Washington State wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who in 2011 caught 82 passes for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns.
BYU cornerback Jordan Johnson, who made the switch to defense after arriving at BYU in 2010, insists he’s ready. Never mind that he’s 6 inches shorter than Wilson.
“I can’t wait,” said the 5-foot-10 Johnson, who as a backup last season had two interceptions. “We watched a ton of film and read the scouting report. We’ll be well-prepared for the Air Raid.”
BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, more of a free spirit like Leach, has confidence in his defense. He also takes solace knowing it’s the opener.
“We’re lucky it’s their first game in a new system,” Nelson said. “There are always kinks to be worked out. But, yeah, we expect them to throw the ball down the field and put up points.”
Three previous meetings between the teams have all been shootouts, with Ty Detmer tossing five TDs in a 50-36 BYU win in 1990, and Steve Broussard’s four-touchdown effort lifting Washington State 46-41 in 1989. In the first meeting, BYU won a 38-36 game in the 1981 Holiday Bowl.
Back then, BYU was champion of the Western Athletic Conference, Jim McMahon was its quarterback, and Tom Holmoe, now the school’s athletic director, was a defensive back who returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown.
While BYU (10-3) closed its first season of independence with a victory in the Armed Forces Bowl, the other Cougars sent coach Paul Wulff packing after a 4-8 finish (9-40 over four seasons, last bowl game coming in 2003).
Enter Leach, who met his future wife in Provo but also was chastised by BYU’s honor police for wearing his hair too long, according to his book “Swing Your Sword.”
With Thursday approaching, Leach simply says he is looking forward to returning to the sidelines.
“Going against Mike Leach is going to be a challenge,” said BYU’s Poppinga, whose team is nearly a two-touchdown favorite. “Look at his time with Texas Tech. He never had a losing season (84-43, 10 bowl games) after taking over a program that had been kind of down in the dumps. And it sounds like, through reports we’re getting, that their offense is rolling right now.
“It’s going to be a big-time battle. A lot of people out there are thinking we’re going to come out there and blow them out, but not against a guy that has the reputation he has and can coach the way he can coach.”